Sermon for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 27, 2014
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I went to seminary at Virginia Theological Seminary, just outside Washington, D.C. One Friday night, me and my buddies took the subway into D.C. to see one of our favorite musicians, Langhorne Slim. I don’t know how to describe Langhorne Slim – he’s an alternative country rocker. Or something like that. Anyway, we show up in this sleazy little club for the show. And I should clarify – every club in D.C. is sleazy and little. And while I’m standing there, soaking it all in – the sleazy, smoky, disgusting atmosphere – Langhorne Slim launches into what I think must be one of the greatest songs of all-time. It’s called, “Rebel Side of Heaven.” The chorus of the song goes like this – “and though we have sinned all of our lives, well, we ain’t going to hell/no, we ain’t going to hell/we’re going to the rebel side of heaven.” That is pure genius.
Jesus is also talking about the rebel side of heaven. Jesus launches into all these parables about the kingdom of heaven. And at first glance, they seem real nice. That’s so sweet – a mustard seed grows into a big old tree and the birds come and nest in the tree.
Or the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, and when someone finds the treasure, he goes out and buys that field. How wonderful for that person to have such a great treasure now. And we get a pearl of great value and the owner must be so happy about it. The last little parable also doesn’t seem that bad. Sure, some people may be thrown into the furnace. But we’re Christians, so we should be alright. And I bet it works out for us. Right?
Well, we’ve got to take a closer look. Because Jesus is talking about the rebel side of heaven. Parables are not about nice things. Parables are scary things that turn the world upside down and subvert the established order.
Take mustard plants for example. Alright, no one in their right mind would want a mustard plant in their fields. The ancients described mustard as “fiery, pungent, and destructive.” This isn’t like a beautiful magnolia tree. This is something that you would try to remove from your garden. But that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
And birds are not nice. Or clean. Farmers put up scarecrows because they don’t want birds in their fields. They bring all sorts of diseases and eat the crops. And they poop all over everything. Seriously, you do not want birds around. And yet, that’s what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
Then there’s this woman who is mixing yeast to make bread. How wonderful and quaint and sweet. Surely this is a parable we can understand. Time out – the woman is using nine gallons of flour. Look, I’m not a baker, but I know that’s way too much flour for any normal person. That’s the amount of flour only a rebel would use. That’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.
Or take this guy who finds a treasure hidden in a field. Without telling the current owner of the field that something valuable is there, he buys the field so that he gets the treasure, In other words, he cheats the owner. We’ve got a name for those kinds of people. They’re called unethical scoundrels – and that’s putting it nicely. I mean, if you were to do that to somebody’s oil and gas property today, you would get sued for mega money. But instead, this is what the Kingdom of heaven is like.
And what merchant would sell everything he has for one pearl? That’s nuts. Because he’s no longer a merchant, he’s just a guy with a pearl. He’s a rebel.
What I’m getting at is that what Jesus calls the kingdom of heaven is probably not what we would call the kingdom of heaven. Whereas we want heaven to be the beautiful place that we go to when we die, Jesus is describing a backwards, upside down, subversive world. The rebel side of heaven.
So there are three things to learn from this: first, when you go to sleazy little clubs in D.C., listen for Jesus talking.
Second, read these parables very closely. Don’t gloss over them and think you know what they mean. Really pick them apart. Dive in and start asking yourself about what it means to be a good fish and what it means to be a bad fish. What it means to start baking with an insane amount of flour. One of the greatest problems with Christianity today is that Christians don’t ask serious questions. We read something or hear something, assume we know what it means, and then move on without giving it second thought. Treating the holy scriptures that way might even be worse than not reading them at all. Because the truth of the matter is that Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples these parables because they’re easy to swallow. Jesus uses these parables because he’s a rebel and he’s turning the whole world upside down. Remember, Jesus is crucified precisely because he’s a traitor and a revolutionary.
Finally, what this means, is that if you follow Jesus, you’re going to be a rebel too. You’re not going to fit in with the crowd. You will be marching to the beat of a different drummer. Seen from the vantage point of the world, you are going to be subversive. Why? Because you’ll start writing checks of obscene amounts to charities and churches instead of hoarding it for yourself. You’ll start talking about this Jesus guy like he’s your best friend but also like he’s the Lord of heaven and earth, because he’s both. You’ll start praying at home, and watch out you Episcopalians, you might even pray out loud without using the Book of Common Prayer. You rebels.
The Kingdom of heaven that we proclaim, the one we truly proclaim, is about living right here and right now like Jesus lived. It means that we are going to do some very strange things, like love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. That means terrorists. It’s a little rebellious, isn’t it? It’s a little rebellious to give up your Sunday mornings to worship this revolutionary, subversive, rebel who lived two thousand years ago and says things that are out of this world. But hey, that’s because what Jesus says is from a better world.
You are going to be subversive. You are going to live like you are already in that better world. You are going to cut across the grain. Take our youth group for example – this week they are going on a mission during which they’ll sleep on air mattresses, get up early to serve the poor, and work all day. Work all day for Jesus. Their friends will be sleeping in and playing on their summer vacation. I tell you, our youth group is full of rebels.
While other churches are busy worrying about who’s in and who’s out, we’re going to be rebels and do what Jesus did. We are going to welcome anybody and everybody that has nowhere else to go. Because we’re a bunch of rebels.
Look, I don’t know about you, but sometimes when I hear about the kingdom of heaven being about hanging out with sweet Jesus with kittens and rainbows and butterflies and angel babies, I just get bored. I mean, seriously, who wants that? Jesus sure doesn’t want that, because that’s not the Kingdom of heaven he’s talking about. The Kingdom of heaven that Jesus is talking about is revolutionary and seditious and inflammatory. It’s a crazy, mixed up life that Jesus gives us. But it’s the only life worth living. It’s the rebel side of heaven.